1985 & 2000 David Persuitte's comments (excerpts)

Persuitte, David: Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon NC, 1985; 2nd printing 1991; (2nd printing text used
here -- rev. 2nd ed. 2000 excerpts not yet transcribed)

Go to: Transcriber's comments

The entire contents of this book copyright 1985 & 2000 by David Persuitte.
Due to copyright restrictions, only limited "fair use" excerpts are presented here.

View of the Hebrews (1823)   |   Ethan Smith theory   |   1990 review   |   1992 review


Joseph Smith and
the Origins of
the Book of Mormon


David Persuitte

McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
Jefferson, North Carolina, and London

  Because of copyright law restrictions,
only limited "fair use" excerpts are presented here.


Appendix C

The Spalding Theory

The Spalding theory for the origin of The Book of Mormon was in vogue for many decades of the nineteenth century. It has subsequently re-surfaced at times -- most recently in 1977 when new evidence for it was claimed to have been found. The new evidence, it turned out, was invalid, though it had been accepted by many people. A new piece of documentation relating to the Spalding theory turned up as this book was being completed. It involves Ethan Smith and might explain how the Spalding controversy began in the first place.

The Spalding theory on the origin of The Book of Mormon had its start in 1834, when Eber D. Howe published his book, Mormonism Unvailed. In it, Howe presented several statements given by relatives and acquaintances of one Solomon Spalding, claiming that The Book of Mormon was based on a romance that Spalding had written before his death in 1816. The first of these, as Howe gave them, was by John Spalding, Solomon Spalding's brother:
Solomon Spalding was born in Ashford, Conn. in 1761, and in early life contracted a taste for literary pursuits. After he left school, he entered Plainfield Academy, where he made great proficiency in study, and excelled most of his classmates. He next commenced the study of Law, in Windham county, in which he made little progress, having in the mean time turned his attention to religious subjects. He soon after entered Dartmouth College, with the intention of qualifying himself for the ministry, where he obtained the degree of A. M. and was afterwards regularly ordained. After preaching three or four years, he gave it up, removed to Cherry Valley, N. Y., and commenced the mercantile business in company with his brother Josiah. --

In a few years he failed in business, and in the year 1809 removed to Conneaut, in Ohio. The year following, I removed to Ohio, and found him engaged in building a forge. I made him a visit in about three years after; and found that he had failed, and considerably involved in debt. He then told me had he been writing a book, which he intended to have printed, the avails of which he thought would enable him to pay all his debts. The book was entitled the "Manuscript Found," of which he read to me many passages. -- It was an historical romance of the first settlers of America, endeavoring to show that the American Indians are the descendants of the Jews, or the lost tribes. It gave a detailed account of their journey from Jerusalem, by land and sea, till they arrived in America, under the command of NEPHI AND LEHI. They afterwards had quarrels and contentions,

Due to copyright restrictions, only limited "fair use" excerpts are reproduced here.
Pages 248 through 249 not transcribed.

250 Appendices  

[Joseph Smith] spent some time in Bainbridge before he was supposed to have acquired the gold plates. In any case, both Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith vehemently denied that The Book of Mormon was based on Spalding's romance.

For several decades after Howe published his book, new witnesses came forward to testify that The Book of Mormon was based on Spalding's romance. New witnesses also turned up to provide further "evidence" of Rigdon's complicity in the affair. Rather than diminishing memories of past events, the passage of time seemed instead to sharpen recollections. Unfortunately, the recollections of these witnesses did not always tally with each other.

The Spalding theory received a minor setback in 1884 when the person who inherited Howe's papers discovered among them the manuscript that was found in the trunk by Howe's associates. The manuscript was given to Oberlin College in Ohio, and the Mormons immediately published it with the declaration that the Spalding theory could at last be put to rest. Howe, however, had honestly described this manuscript when he published his book almost fifty years earlier; the crux of the Spalding theory actually depended upon there being a second manuscript, and obviously if Joseph had got hold of a second manuscript, it would not have been in the trunk.

Though the Mormons declared there were no similarities between the Spalding manuscript and Joseph Smith's latter-day revelation, there in fact are some. The similarities, however, though interesting, are not compelling. Both books describe a sea voyage; both describe wars between two factions of ancient Americans; both describe the use of earthwork forts; both relate that sacred writings were preserved among the records of their respective peoples; and both describe the ancient inhabitants of America as possessing horses and elephants. (In Spalding's work there are mammoths, and also "mammoons," which Spalding described as being bigger than elephants and very useful; The Book of Mormon describes the Jaredites as having, in addition to elephants, "cureloms and cumoms . . . which were useful unto man.") The earthworks in Spalding's work were the same ones by the Scioto River that Charles Thompson said were described in The Book of Mormon (see pp. 165-166).

The people in Spalding's manuscript are not described as being descended from the Israelites. Moreover, Spalding had the ship, a Roman ship, come to the New World merely to provide someone who could write the history of the natives in Latin, which Spalding could then claim to have translated. It is also noteworthy that the term "And it came to pass" is used only once in the manuscript.

The next big event concerning the Spalding theory came in 1977 when Wayne L. Cowdrey (a distant relative of Oliver Cowdery), Howard A. Davis, and Donald R. Scales announced that they had proof that The Book of Mormon was based on a second manuscript of Spalding's.5 The proof consisted of twelve pages of manuscript copy that they claimed were part of that long-lost second manuscript. According to these men, the twelve pages were part of the manuscript copy of The Book of Mormon in the possession [of] the Utah church. The different handwritings in the remainder of this copy could be identified as belonging to various of Joseph Smith's scribes, but that on the twelve pages could not be so identified. Cowdrey, Davis, and Scales contended that this handwriting matched Spalding's in the Oberlin manuscript.

Appendix  C 251

The three handwriting experts called in were not unanimous in their opinions. One dropped out and refused to make any comment, one declared that the handwriting in the two documents was the same, while another declared that it was not the same. This last expert, Howard C. Doulder, concluded that any similarities were due to the different writing style of the time when compared with that of today. This difference could cause someone used to the modern style to attribute the similarities in the samples of the older writing to the same hand, though they were actually from different hands.

Moreover, shortly after the three researchers made their claims public, the church archivists found another sample of handwriting identical to that in the Book of Mormon manuscript pages in question. It was found in a manuscript dated June, 1831, which contained some of Joseph Smith's revelations and could not have been written by Solomon Spalding.

The church also published handwriting samples from the Spalding and Book of Mormon manuscripts. There were differences that a layman could easily observe.6

Although the claims of these recent researchers have proved invalid, that does not mean there is nothing to the Spalding theory. It is conceivable that Joseph Smith or one of his associates did acquire a copy of a second Spalding manuscript. The Book of Mormon could then have had its beginning in that manuscript as an essentially non-religious book. Ethan Smith's ideas could then have been brought in also to provide a significant embellishment and a religious background. Such a scenario would explain why Spalding's acquaintances were able to find similarities between The Book of Mormon and Spalding's manuscript.

There is another possibility that could explain those similarities. The following article, which was recently uncovered, originally appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer of April 24, 1887, long before anybody had noticed similarities between View of the Hebrews and The Book of Mormon.


A Puritan Minister Partly Responsible for its Production

View graphic and original article's text

252 Appendices  

View graphic and original article's text

Appendix  C 253

Perhaps Ethan Smith's grandson was merely joining others who were "uncovering" the origin of The Book of Mormon. Still, his words deserve consideration

To be sure, there are some problems with what is said in the article, (though there is nothing in it that is impossible). The statement that Solomon Spalding and Ethan Smith were acquainted might possibly be true. Both men became Congregational ministers and both attended Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. Spalding entered as a sophomore and graduated with the class of 1785. Since he was not licensed to preach until October 9, 1787, however, in Windham, Connecticut, he likely continued his ministerial studies until that date.7 Ethan Smith entered Dartmouth in 1786 after a course of study in Belchertown, Massachusetts.8 (Ethan Smith's grandson was in error about his grandfather's being the senior of the two; Spalding was actually about a year older.) Ethan Smith, then, was studying for the ministry at about the same time as Spalding, and their locations, Windham and Belchertown, were about fifty miles apart.

Given the foregoing, one might consider the possibility that both men took a term of instruction together under some noted minister, and so met. Or, perhaps they became acquainted at some religious gathering that took place under the auspices of the Congregational Church. Through these or other circumstances, they might have become friends. And, since he appears to have had a greater knowledge of religion, Ethan Smith might have helped Spalding with his studies

Let us go back in time and presume that Ethan Smith and Solomon Spalding do meet and become good friends. Let us also presume that their friendship continues and they correspond with each other. Occasionally, this correspondence consists of the trading of ideas and information about the ancient inhabitants of America, especially after Spalding moves to Ohio and becomes intrigued by the ancient earthworks there. The trading of ideas stimulates both men to write romances about the ancient Americans.

Spalding aims to publish his romance at a profit. But Ethan Smith feels it would not be suitable to publish his, since such a "frivolity" might injure his reputation as a religious writer. Instead, he accumulates more evidence in support of his theories about ancient America with the goal of eventually publishing them in a more serious and acceptable form -- what would become View of the Hebrews.

Meanwhile, Spalding is not having much luck with his story. He writes to his old friend, Ethan Smith, and relates monetary problems and an inability to produce a publishable romance. The New England minister, thinking he might help, sends a draft of his story to Spalding. He tells Spalding that he is free to use it as he sees fit, but that he does not want his own name to be in any way associated with it. Spalding takes Ethan Smith's manuscript and combines it with his own ideas. He reads it to his family and acquaintances. They think it is better than his previous attempts. He tries to get the manuscript published in Pittsburgh, but does not succeed, and [a] short time later dies. The manuscript disappears, perhaps being discarded when the printing firm goes out of business.

Ethan Smith finds his way to Poultney, Vermont, where, in 1823, he

Due to copyright restrictions, only limited "fair use" excerpts are reproduced here.
Pages 254 through 295 not transcribed. 

Transcriber's Comments

David Persuitte's book broke new ground in 1985 and the author's revamping of the original volume (in its reincarnation of 2000) presents the best argument for the "Ethan Smith dependance theory" published to date. The author maintains a rather disinterested tone throughout the book -- although his goal is clearly to discredit Joseph Smith, Jr. as a professed translator of ancient American records.

While Persuitte makes good use of the Ethan Smith claims in order to persuade the reader that Joseph Smith, Jr. had access to (and made use of) the Congregational minister's 1825 edition of View of the Hebrews, he provides little in the way of external evidence in order to support his interesting allegations. Instead, the author concentrates on pointing out numerous thematic and linguistic parallels he and others have discovered in reading Ethan Smith's book and then comparing its content to that in the Book of Mormon. Persuitte's use of what Hugh Nibley once called the "comparative method" may be convincing to his non-Mormon readers, but the majority of Latter Day Saint "true believers" will probably not come away from reading his arguments with any particular doubt that the Book of Mormon is truly an ancient historical record. To close this gap in incredulity Persuitte really needs to offer a much greater collection of reliable external evidence than he has so far put before his audience.

Ara Norwood once faulted Persuitte for starting out with the presupposition that The Book of Mormon is directly dependent upon Ethan Smith's View Of The Hebrews. In his not allowing for other possible conclusions, Norwood felt that Persuitte had unjustly robbed Joseph Smith, Jr. of his claim to a prophetic gift and calling. Whatever might be said about Joseph's supernatural gifts and experiences, David Persuitte has demonstrated that the writings of Ethan Smith and Josiah Priest very likely influenced both the language and the thematic development of at least some parts of the Mormon book. However, even granting Persuitte the greatest latitude in stating his case against Joseph Smith, informed readers will probably come away from their examination of this book (even with its revisions and additions in 2000 the edition) unsatisfied and puzzled.

The author allows for the reasonable possibility that Joseph Smith, Jr. did not act alone in his bringing forth what appears to be a nineteenth century literary production. He even allows for the possibility that Ethan Smith and Solomon Spalding shared a close personal relationship and that ideas and writings of the one may have affected the work of the other. So, perhaps, he is now moving in the direction of postulating an origin for the Book of Mormon that involved both Solomon Spalding and Ethan Smith. None of this enlightened speculation serves very well to answer the question of why the Book of Mormon was written. If Joseph Smith, Jr. and/or his associates pirated ideas and material from these two erstwhile Congregational ministers, exactly how and for what purpose was that toilsome task carried to fruition?

Persuitte's examples, analysis and arguments may work as a kind of introduction to one line of productive speculation upon Book of Mormon origins. But that introduction falls short of explaining the supposed secret motives and actions of Joseph Smith, Jr. and his pre-Mormon comrades in finalizing the text of the book and getting it published. Most notably, Persuitte confines the scope of his investigation to so narrow a topic that he almost totally excludes the probable input from important pre-Mormons like Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon. In any future, expanded third edition of this book, the author would do well to include an outline the insightful offerings of writers like Clark Braden, William H. Whitsitt, and Theodore A. Schroeder. Only by expanding the focus of his study and his reporting will Mr. Persuitte grant himself an opportunity to truly elucidate the origins of the Book of Mormon. And, only by following the investigative leads likely to be uncovered in such an expanded search, will he increase the possibility of his discovering that decisive external evidence necessary to confirm the theories he has developed from textual study.

I wonder what Mr. Persuitte might do, should he uncover a packet of letters in the Special Collections of Dartmouth College -- a pile of documentary evidence that links both Ethan Smith and Solomon Spalding to the production of the legendary textual precursor to the Book of Mormon?

One Final Note

In Appendix C of his 2000 edition, David Persuitte pays considerable attention to previous textual investigations carried out by the late Vernal Holley and also by myself. His re-publication of the April 24, 1887 Cleveland Plain Dealer article (also in the 1985 edition) provides some useful clues as to the relationship shared by Dartmouth graduates Solomon Spalding and Ethan Smith. David's attribution of the information set forth in the article to Ethan Smith's grandson, Ethan S. Smith, is almost certainly correct. He fails to notice, however, that the Plain Dealer writer conflated and blurred parts of Ethan S. Smith's testimony. The "Dr. Smith" indistinctly referred to in the newspaper article was almost certainly not intended to represent Rev. Ethan Smith. Instead, "Dr. Smith" must be Dr. John Smith, the Dartmouth professor who, no doubt, instructed both Solomon Spalding and Ethan Smith in "Natural Philosophy" in the 1780s. Copies of Dr. Smith's lectures on such interesting subjects as the origin of the American Indians remain on file in the Dartmouth College Library. If David Persuitte ever has a hankering to uncover the antecedents of Spalding's fictional character Lobaska, he would do well to study the life and work of this same Dr. John Smith.

It is uncertain whether or not the attendance of students Solomon Spalding and Ethan Smith overlapped at Dartmouth College. Spalding finished his BA studies at the college just before Ethan Smith entered his Freshman year there. Spalding may have lingered in the area or returned to take some class work necessary for his MA degree, and thus overlapped Ethan's time at the school. If it was Dartmouth that awarded Spaldings MA degree, the probability that he was at the school at least for a while when Ethan Smith ws there is enlarged. However, Spalding's MA degree does not appear in the known records of Dartmouth and it is possible that the college did not award him that degree.

For an early Latter Day Saint reaction to the Cleveland Plain Dealer article, see the RLDS Saints' Herald issues of July 30, 1887 and Aug 20, 1887

Dale R. Broadhurst
Feb. 26, 2002

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